Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

by Jerry Jones on January 25, 2017

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?

 

 

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About Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com
  • K Faber

    Thank you for the reminder to embrace my overseas identity when I return home. I do agree that it’s important to put my “new identity” in the plus column and even share that with my friends and family I’ve left behind. Good encouragement to start the day.

  • Jennifer McDuffie

    I find that the most difficult part of identity growth is not necessarily our individual acceptances of that growth but the lack of ability of my family and friends I left behind to accept that growth. I can’t blame them. In some ways, when we (my family) return, we are coming back as we left and they didn’t have the ability to walk through everything we went through that created this growth. But we have grown. We aren’t the same. And isn’t that what life is all about, whether abroad or not?

  • Very timely as we prepare for our first year furlough after being abroad for 3 years. It does in some ways feel like things were lost in the process even while I know we’ve gained many, many valuable things. This is a great perspective. I agree with K… a good thought to start the day!

  • Renée Walker

    Such good points! I especially like what you say in point two…”Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.” My first trip back to the States after living abroad was so confusing because of exactly that. It had felt like fake time, and it was very unsettling that so many things had changed in my hometown – people, places, buildings…stoplights! The was a new Starbucks! Going back and forth a couple more times helped temper that experience, but I still remember how jarring it was. But I’m with you in the end – I’ll take the “loss” of identity, because I’m happy with the direction my identity is headed!

  • Kathy Vaughan

    I don’t want to be the person I was before living abroad! It has changed me, in ways that needed changing, and I would definitely put “Identity” in the positive column. I think one of the hard things for me is in living out that change when I return home, knowing that people there have not experienced what I have experienced, and feeling that they don’t understand how cross-cultural living has changed me. I find myself wanting others to change, particularly in their world view and their compassion for others, without having had the benefit of the experiences that have led to changes within me.

  • Tim

    I’ve lived in Korea for over 8 years now. I haven’t been back to the US in 7 of those 8 years, and have recently felt an internal crisis of frustration and anger with the Korean society and way of thinking that I live in. I’ve worked in a 100% Korean environment (including language) for the past 6 years.

    Although we expats try to fully dive into our surroundings abroad, perhaps we need to occasionally touch base back home to get centered. I’ve tried to become someone I’m not here, and doing so long term has been really confusing for me. Even though I don’t fully identify with the US, I also can’t deny my entrepreneurial spirit and individualistic way of life that is so at odds to Korean thinking.

    Is it possible to be who we are, while still being accepted by the foreign culture we live in?
    These two things seem to be counter-opposed.

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